(image courtesy of ha11ok via pixabay.com)
In Greek mythology, Zeus and Mnemosyne (the goddess of memory) had nine daughters, who were the muses of the arts: Calliope (epic poetry), Clio (history), Euterpe (flutes and music), Thalia (comedy and pastoral poetry), Melpomene (tragedy), Terpsichore (dance), Erato (love poetry and lyric poetry), Polyhymnia (hymns and sacred poetry), Urania (astronomy).
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That’s quite a list. Look at how many types of poetry are covered in it. And both history and astronomy are considered arts that require muses. Apollo was the god of music, poetry, and art (along with oracles, archery, sun, light, plague, medicine, and knowledge). Again – more poetry.
Poetry was vitally important to the Greeks.
Over the centuries, “muse” is a term often used for an individual who drives the artist to create. Sometimes it’s the artist’s model. Elizabeth Siddal inspired the Pre-Raphaelites. Victorine Meurent, herself an artist, posed for and inspired Manet, Degas, and Stevens. Kiki Montparnasse inspired Surrealists. Maude Gonne was considered Yeats’s muse. Actress Marta Abba was Pirandello’s muse.
And so forth and so on.
Many muses were women who inspired men. There’s an entire cabal who believes that only women can be muses (I disagree with this). Often, those women were artists in their own right, whose work was considered “less than” because they were women, and the men’s work was more valued.
There’s a wonderful piece on the Paris Review blog about Gabriele Mǖnter’s work, and how, although she was best known for her relationship with Kandinsky, she was an artist in her own right with her own value. You can read the piece here. There’s a terrific piece on women considering what it means to be a muse, and how an more equal partnership is necessary by Sonnie Sussilo here. The piece has links to other pieces and opinions. I have not yet read Mary Gordon’s novel SPENDING, which is mentioned in the article, but I’ve put it on my list and ordered it from the library.
Poet Claire Pollard talks about The Female Poet and the Male Muse in another wonderful piece.
There was George Dwyer, who was Francis Bacon’s muse and lover. Stories vary about how they met: one story says they met when Dwyer broke into Bacon’s house; another says they met in a pub. Virginia Woolf celebrated Vita Sackville-West with ORLANDO. There are hundreds of examples. If you dig into the life stories, diaries, and letters of all kinds of creatives, you can find a wide range of muses, some defying the traditional constructs. Attention is given to pairings with sexual or romantic relationships between artists and models, because that feeds the tabloidesque interests of many people, but that’s also limiting, at least in my opinion.
Inspiration is often provided when others’ work moves me strongly, be it words, art, movement, music, nature, an event, an idea. But a muse provides steady inspiration and triggers new ideas that expand growth.
For me, a muse is the way an artist personifies creative drive, to make it more relatable. Sometimes, it is an actual person, be it a colleague or a romantic partner. Honestly, some of my best work has been written after a breakup. While one can joke that makes the ex an Anti-Muse, I use the term “Anti-Muse” if I get into a relationship with a man and he or the relationship becomes an obstacle to my work. I then know I have to get out of that relationship for my own survival. All the positive relationships have made my work stronger. The toxic ones ignited strong work once the relationship ended.
I don’t have to have sex with someone I consider a muse. Lovers have influenced my work, both positively and negatively, but for me, that’s not the requirement for a muse. And, if you wrap your creative powers too tightly in another person, it will backfire, giving them too much power over you. Your creative power MUST remain your own.
As a playwright, there are plenty of times I’ve written for specific actors (often at their behest). That’s how I got into playwrighting. I worked backstage, and actresses complained about the lack of good monologues for women (yes, I’m that old). They struggled to find audition pieces. I asked what kind of role they were up for, and what kind of monologue they wanted. Then I wrote them a two-minute monologue (which is the typical length of an audition piece). When they used the monologue, most of the time, they landed the role.
That expanded to writing scenes and then plays. Because I worked in the theatre, I understood the structures and the rhythms and the technical requirements. It was all of a piece.
Years later, I was introduced to via Skype to an actor whose work I knew by other actors who know both of us. He asked me to write him an audition monologue because he felt he was being typecast. We worked over Skype (this was pre-Zoom), me in my home office, he in his rented rehearsal studio in London. In passing, I mentioned he’d be great playing one of my favorite historical figures. He'd never even considered trying out for that kind of role, and didn’t know much about that person, except for the name and reputation. So of course, I sent him a list of my favorite works by and about that person. About a year later, I got an email – he’d been cast as that character! The show only lasted a season (for good reason), but his work was excellent, and I was really proud of the work he did in the role.
When I wrote plays that travelled to festivals, using one actress in particular, I wrote with her in mind, layering her natural cadence over the character’s cadence so the dialogue sounded and felt natural. I’ve cast actors I didn’t know previously for my work, and then gone on to write specifically for them in other plays. I’ve worked with actors who inspired characters in my books Billy Root in the Jain Lazarus Adventures and Justin in The Gwen Finnegan Mysteries were inspired by the same actor, although both characters evolved far away from each other and from him. Gavin, in the upcoming Gambit Colony series (that takes place behind the scenes shooting a television show) was inspired by an actor with whom I worked on Broadway, and we had all kinds of discussions about art, life, and creation along the time we worked together. Again, because I’ve done my work as a writer, the character evolved away from the actor (although I retained some of his speech rhythms, his talent, his optimism, and his fierce loyalty to his friends). All of these people inspired work, including the actresses for whom I created audition pieces, and therefore, could be considered muses. None of them were sexual or romantic partners. That didn’t interfere with their ability to serve as inspiration.
It’s much tricker to write for an actor you don’t know but admire, because there are so many layers between getting it read and something happening. The actor could be booked for the next three years. The actor might be looking to change direction and this piece is in the same wheelhouse for which they’re known without bringing anything fresh to the table. There are lots of variables. Even when you do know an actor, even if that actor has power, there are hundreds of potential projects that never get made for a myriad of reasons.
And, ultimately, a well-written script inspires a multitude of actors to play the roles, each bringing something unique, because, with stage plays, you want the piece to have a long life in multiple productions. Getting stuck on a single individual as muse can be destructive. They can be a wonderful catalyst, but the piece and the characters have to evolve on their own, and not be dependent on a single performer.
I’ve played with personifying the idea of “muse” at various times as both male and female, often as androgynous, and joked about it on and off over the nineteen years of the blog Ink in My Coffee, especially in the earliest years. I even attempted to personify “muse” as a 1920’s style couple, trying to solidify both male and female elements. I used to try to create embodiments of “Muse” for different projects. Juggling projects, which I have to do in order to make a living, keep a roof over my head, and food on the table, makes that challenging (not to mention crowded). Inspiration, I think, pulls from so many different elements that it doesn’t need to be tied to gender unless that’s what serves a particular project. At this point, I consider “Muse” to contain all, and then to transform into what’s best needed to drive the particular project.
Last week, on Ink In My Coffee, I had an epiphany when I had resistance to working on a new project. I’d like to say “the Muse wasn’t there” but the reality is that the writers who claim they can only write “when the Muse strikes” often have other sources of income and partners who shoulder the physical, emotional, and financial burdens of day-to-day life. As someone who is the breadwinner of my family, I have to show up and get it done when it’s contracted and deadlined, whether I feel like it or not. That’s where reliance on craft comes in. I might not feel “the Muse” but if there’s a contracted deadline, I can rely on the skills I’ve built in the craft to get it done on time, and done well enough to meet the parameters. Fortunately, for that particular project, I was not on a contracted deadline, and can backburner it until it grows organically (if it does).
A lot of working with the muse is showing up. I subscribe to the belief that if you keep turning away the Muse and not showing up to do the work, not MAKING the time to do the work, the Muse leaves. The Muse will find someone who will listen and create. The Muse is a form of energy, which means it remains in motion. If it has to stand around and wait, it gets stagnant. So it goes somewhere else, where there’s receptive motion. That’s why jotting down notes for projects, even if you can’t drop everything and create them now, is so important (there will be an entire post on that in the future). Finishing projects matters. Unfinished projects drain creative energy, which is why I created the class (and the Topic Workbook) of The Graveyard of Abandoned Projects.
How do you define a muse? Do you have a specific muse you work with throughout? Or do you have different muses for different projects? Or do you eschew the concept of muse? I’d love to hear your opinions in the comments.
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I know a Muse is a person but my mind keeps going to places instead of people. I write quite a lot of poetry of place, especially about the North Adams area. Not sure what that says about me and my human relationships...